People are still arguing with The Naked Ape. Last month, the Christian Courier published an article "debunking" Desmond Morris's popular 1967 book about animal behavior: "The cumulative evidence forces the honest investigator to admit that man's ancestry is not to be found in the savagery of the animal kingdom," the article declares. Just about any good used bookstore has at least one battered paperback copy of The Naked Ape on its shelves, and to look at the book—it's thin and often adorned with a satisfying line drawing of a simian or two on the cover—it's hard to believe the furor it caused.
Morris, a British zoologist, wrote frankly about the human being as an animal, providing enough revelations to humiliate any self-respecting creationist. Like virtually every book about a scientific topic written in the vernacular, Naked was attacked by some scientists as an oversimplification, but no other bestseller has contributed as much scientific fact to the discourse of everyday Americans: It popularized terms like "hunter-gatherer" and delivered a message of messy humility to our snobby species. Whereas many science-minded books don't age well—those hosts of chaos-theory books from the '90s are now just empty husks—Naked still retains its ability to inform and surprise. It's on college syllabi across the country, and it pops up with alarming regularity in the "favorite books" section of many people's MySpace profiles. (There aren't many books like that on MySpace.)
The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself, by Hannah Holmes, continues Morris's good work. Rather than writing broadly about the species, Holmes looks in the mirror—literally—and reports back on the animal she sees. The result is a kind of scientific memoir, an exploration of the species through deep introspection. It's also a creature from an even more rare phylum: a book about its author that doesn't give too much information or bore with unchecked solipsism. Aspiring memoirists would do well to pay attention; Holmes understands the importance of portraying oneself not as a special case but as a microcosm of common experience.
Holmes is a better writer than Morris; in the chapter about ears, she begins: "Reading last evening on the couch I was distracted by a scratch. A scuttle. The plastery gritching of Mus musculus, the house mouse." It's not far from the "plastery gritching" to Holmes's ear itself: "So let's take a look at this pinnal flap of mine. It's no thing of beauty. It's a bald ruffle of cartilage, immobile as an owl's eye."
She has that rare pop-science writer's ability to casually drop facts that makes a reader think again about something so ubiquitous as to be forgotten like, say, living in tall buildings:
When I hunt for science on high-rise humans, the scant research I locate has been conducted mainly on college students in dormitories... While students on lower floors tend to feel their rooms are too small and insufficiently private, students in identical rooms on high floors rate their rooms as light, quiet, and spacious. However, there does seem to be a price for climbing too high. A smattering of studies suggests that mental health suffers from living aloft. Children especially show more symptoms of mental illness when they perch in tall buildings.
Holmes is a chatty, inquisitive guide—she gamely picks apart her decision not to bear children and eats raw meat to see what it feels like: "It slithers between the teeth, crushing a little, but then squirting free. To reduce it to pulp demands minutes, not seconds, of chewing." Much of her writing resembles Mary Roach's breezy, unflinching style. There is preciousness: "Lions and tigers and cats (oh my) can't taste sweetness (oh bummer)." But it counteracts some of the savagery that Holmes reports, as in the story of the black eagle, which lays a second egg as an "insurance policy" that at least one chick will survive. If both eggs hatch, the smaller chick is still doomed: "Over the course of days, it pecks the sibling bloody, then broken, then dead. The parents do not intervene."
Whereas Morris demonstrated that the human being is just another brute in the animal kingdom, Holmes maintains that we have special traits: generosity, reason, the ability to eat ourselves to obesity. Holmes cheerfully pokes holes in one of Morris's more spurious allegations, the Aquatic Ape Theory (which suggests that apes returned briefly to the ocean, and the aquatic life rendered them—us—hairless and big-brained).
The book is full of ideas that will have a reader looking askance at a pet cat—or ferrets, starlings, and prairie dogs, for that matter—and that is exactly as it should be. This book will never attain the notoriety that The Naked Ape did; in part, Morris' book is so well remembered because it blazed new trails for popular science writing, and Holmes follows in his footsteps. That's okay. The Well-Dressed Ape does for its Naked predecessor what a good science book should: It honors the ground that has been covered by a forebear and makes great strides forward—a perfect example of evolution.